A Packer what-if

The three greatest quarterbacks in Packers history in the Super Bowl era are Bart Starr, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, arguably followed by Lynn Dickey.

After Dickey comes, or came, the abyss. Fans who suffered through the Gory Years after Vince Lombardi left and before Ron Wolf got to Green Bay can recite with varying degrees of exasperation the list of starting quarterbacks after Starr and before Favre, including Scott Hunter (who at least won a division title by handing off to John Brockington and MacArthur Lane), Jerry Tagge (a Green Bay native whose skills as Nebraska’s quarterback in more of a passing offense than the Cornhuskers eventually ran didn’t translate into the NFL), Jim Del Gaizo (because the third-string draft pick of the Super Bowl VII champion Miami Dolphins should be worth two second-round draft picks, right?), Jack Concannon (perhaps because he was on the early ’70s Cowboys practicd squad), John Hadl (more about him momentarily), Don Milan, Carlos Brown (later known as actor Alan Autry of “In the Heat of the Night”), Randy Johnson and David Whitehurst produced little success.

That’s the pre-Dickey’s-broken-leg list. After Dickey came Randy Wright (one of UW’s best quarterbacks, but see Tagge), Jim Zorn (previously in Seattle), Don Majkowski (Magik for 1989), Anthony Dilweg (despite being the grandson of a Packer alumnus), Mike Tomczak (who was less effective in Green Bay than he was in Chicago, and he was no Jim McMahon with Da Bears) and Blair Kiel (formerly of Notre Dame, about which more later).

The worst part of this tale of woe is Hadl, the object of possibly the most idiotic trade in NFL history. Somewhere between Del Gaizo and Milan GM/coach Dan Devine realized he had no NFL-level quarterbacks on his roster. And so Devine panicked and sent two first-round draft picks, a second-round pick and two third-round picks to the Rams for Hadl. Starr, who replaced Devine as GM and coach after Devine left for Notre Dame, then had to send two more draft picks and a player to Houston to get Dickey.

That long preamble leads us to Cliff Christl:

Over a span of seven years, from when the newly formed American Football League held its first draft on Nov. 22, 1959 until a merger agreement with the National Football League was reached in June 1966, the two leagues held separate college drafts and engaged in expensive bidding wars to sign their picks.

The Green Bay Packers lost only one of nine No. 1 choices during that period and it proved to be no loss. Wide receiver Larry Elkins, selected with the Packers’ second first-round pick and 10th choice overall in the 1965 draft, signed with the Houston Oilers and turned out to be a bust. He played two years and caught a total of 24 passes.

Still, the Packers lost a quarterback who could have become Bart Starr’s heir apparent and four solid offensive linemen. …

The AFL held its draft on Dec. 1, 1962, two days before the NFL, and the Buffalo Bills announced 13 days later they had signed Lamonica, their 24th round choice. “I’m going with the Bills because they gave me a better one-year offer,” explained Lamonica. “I don’t intend to play pro ball the rest of my young life. I have other things in mind.”

The quarterback who became known as “The Mad Bomber” as a pro struggled as a senior at Notre Dame under Joe Kuharich much like Joe Montana did later under Dan Devine. In fact, Kuharich considered Lamonica a better runner, but thought junior Frank Budka was the better passer because he threw a better deep ball. So he had them split time.

1963 wasn’t one of Notre Dame’s more memorable seasons and Lamonica was the subject of one of the better stories that circulated in South Bend. Apocryphal or not, it went like this. One day a priest encountered him on a golf course and asked why he wasn’t at practice. Lamonica responded, “I don’t have to practice. I know both of Kuharich’s plays.” So the priest, in need of a golf partner the next day, asked Lamonica to join him. “Can’t make it today,” said the quarterback. “I have to find out which play Joe wants to use Saturday.”

Following a 35-6 loss to Northwestern, Notre Dame was scheduled to play Navy next. That week, the Midshipmen’s chief scout Steve Belichick told the Baltimore Sun that Notre Dame’s biggest problem was quarterback because four players were sharing the position. But Belichick added that he liked what he saw of Lamonica, despite the lopsided score, when he got a chance to play in the second half against Northwestern. “He gave them the best passing they’ve had all year,” Belichick said. Sure enough, against Navy, Lamonica outplayed sophomore Roger Staubach and triggered a four-game winning streak for the Irish.

After signing with Buffalo, Lamonica spent four years backing up veteran Jack Kemp, but went 4-0 in his only starts. Traded to Oakland in 1967, Lamonica led the Raiders to a 13-1 regular-season record, the AFL championship and a matchup with Green Bay in Super Bowl II. He also was named the AFL’s Player of the Year.

The week before the Super Bowl, Green Bay native Red Smith, who would win a Pulitzer Prize nine years later, interviewed George Wilson, who had coached Detroit from 1957-64 and also had faced Lamonica three times as coach of the Miami Dolphins. Asked to compare the two teams, Wilson said he thought Lamonica would be the key to the game. “I believe the two hottest quarterbacks in professional football through the season were Sonny Jurgensen with the Redskins and Lamonica in our league,” said Wilson.

Although Starr outplayed Lamonica in the Super Bowl, the latter compiled a 62-16-6 record as Oakland’s starter before being replaced by future Hall of Famer Ken Stabler in 1973.

When the Raiders acquired Lamonica, Ron Wolf was a 29-year-old scout in his fifth year with the team. Wolf has no doubt Lamonica would have eventually played for the Packers.

“He threw 30 touchdown passes his first year, 34 another year,” said Wolf. “The team went 13-1 with him as a quarterback. He had a strong arm. He could make all the throws. Plus, he was agile enough to get out of trouble.”

In Wolf’s eyes, Lamonica might have been the second best quarterback in AFL history. “Of his era, there wasn’t anybody as good as Joe Namath,” said Wolf. “Joe Namath was a cut above everybody else. He’s in the Hall of Fame. But Daryle would be No. 2. (Len) Dawson is in the Hall of Fame, but I think Daryle was better than Dawson. (George) Blanda is in the Hall of Fame. But Daryle could make all the throws.”

No doubt, Lamonica was better than any Packers’ quarterback between Starr and Lynn Dickey, but he would have been 29 years old when Starr’s shoulder problems signaled the end was near in 1969.

Keep in mind as well that most of Lamonica’s career was in the wide-open AFL. (The same applies to Hadl.) Raiders owner Al Davis coached under Sid Gillman, one of the architects of the modern passing game, and Davis loved throwing deep. (Here’s a big what-if: Davis apparently once considered trading Stabler, perhaps the most accurate quarterback of the 1970s, to Pittsburgh for Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw.) Even though under Bengtson quarterback Don Horn once threw for 410 yards in a game, no NFL team threw as freely as the Raiders with Lamonica or the Chargers with Hadl.

One big problem every Packer quarterback between Starr and Favre faced (often from their backs) was poor-quality offensive lines. Christl’s piece also discusses four offensive linemen the Packers drafted but lost to AFL teams who arguably would have been better than the offensive linemen the Packers had once the Glory Days offensive line retired or were traded away (Forrest Gregg to Dallas).

And while we’re talking about problems of Packer quarterbacks, we might as well add the quality, or lack thereof, of targets for those quarterbacks. The 1972 NFC Central champion Packers were so ground-bound that Hunter averaged less than 100 passing yards per game. Carroll Dale, nearing the end of his career, led the Packers with 16 catches for 317 yards and one touchdown. Those aren’t even good high school numbers today. (In fact the 1972 Packers were just 11th in offensive points per game, but were fourth in points given up per game.)

Other Packer receivers, if you want to call them that, of this era included 1973 first-round pick Barry Smith, who lasted three seasons because he didn’t like to catch balls over the middle, and a group of guys you’ve never heard of. (Jack Clancy? Jon Staggers? Leland Glass? Ollie Smith?) After Dale’s and Boyd Dowler’s departures, not until the Packers drafted James Lofton first in 1978 did they have a quality receiver on the team. (Dale and Dowler were more like spread-out tight ends than fast receivers, which Lombardi never had.) Meanwhile, Hadl was throwing to a Hall of Fame receiver, Lance Alworth, and Lamonica was throwing to another Hall of Fame receiver, Fred Biletnikoff; two other above-average receivers, Warren Wells and tight end Raymond Chester; and several running backs who could also catch.

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